All my life, I’ve been hearing—words and music—the epic story of Siegfried, the hero of the eponymous third section of Richard Wagner’s four-part opera inspired by Norse mythology, Der Ring des Nibelungen, or the Ring Cycle. I had my mother’s childhood books on the Ring (published by the Metropolitan Opera Guild in 1939), and my father liked to tell the story to his children, because his father had told it to him. Yet in all these years, I’d never seen Siegfried, never experienced the full force of the operatic work, in which the visual component must attempt to equal the power of the aural.
Siegfried premiered in Bayreuth, Germany in 1876 during the first performance of the entire cycle, which immediately ignited the passions of operagoers. Those who love Wagnerian opera really love it; those who don’t (for reasons both aesthetic and philosophical) can be quite disdainful. But however you feel about its worldview, you cannot doubt that the Ring is the Gesamtkunstwerk—total work of art—that Wagner asserted it to be. In each section (all can stand alone), the music and lyrics (Wagner wrote both), the instruments and singing, the dramatic action, the sets, costumes and lighting all add up to a great wholeness. The four parts together create a staggering totality.
They cannot be experienced consecutively all at once: There are not enough hours in the day. In fact, unless you are able to travel to the annual festival in Bayreuth, the opportunities to see any part of the Ring live are few and far between. A new staging by any major opera company is a notable event. Not only does any staging cost as much as the vast hoard of gold in dragon Fafner’s cave, at any given time there may be only three or four singers available who are capable of fulfilling the demanding roles.
Siegfried runs well over five hours with intermissions, with the tenor Siegfried onstage and singing an incredible amount of that time. There are just not that many men young enough, heroic enough and strong enough; who know the part, are sensitive to the complex music and whose voices’ can hold up through that much singing. The dissatisfied young Siegfried has to grow up before our eyes, break away from the evil dwarf who has raised him, re-forge the great sword of his slain father, kill the dragon, take the magic ring and helmet, journey through a forest and cross a ring of fire to discover and awaken to womanhood the spellbound Valkyrie Brünnhilde—at which time he must summon his most delicate and beautiful vocalizations.
Or, his “prettiest singin’,” as The Metropolitan Opera’s surprise new Siegfried called it in an interview segment during the Met’s Live in HD presentation of the Opera’s new Siegfried on Nov. 5. Jay Hunter Morris is a strapping youngish tenor from Paris, Texas (it’s next wide spot west of Texarkana, in the Red River valley just south of the Oklahoma line—about 100 miles southwest of the birthplace of my mother’s mother, she who inculcated the love of opera in her daughter with the little illustrated books), and I am pretty sure his natural accent is one never before heard backstage at the Met. Certainly his path to stardom on that stage is unique. His scenic route to success recently included stops in New York’s Central Park, where he hawked rollerblades, and at an athletic club back home in Paris, where his jobs was handing out the towels.
Not that he was inexperienced when the Met called him in just days before the opening (tenor Gary Lehman had withdrawn due to illness). He has sung a wide repertoire, and had sung Siegfried in the San Francisco Opera’s new production earlier this year, receiving good reviews. But to be cannoned in to Robert Lepage’s high-tech production (with its sometimes-effective 45-ton machinery of moving slabs, its video projections and 3-D animated bird) with a cast of already-famous first-class singers—just in time for the dress rehearsals! What an amazing twist of fate and bucket of luck. He got to be a hero and to play the hero, while having his biggest dream come true, and the energy released by all that glowed brighter than the magic ring.
I’m not capable of judging the finer points of the singing, especially at the remove of broadcast. I thought it was wonderful. Some reviewers have noted that Morris’ voice is not that big, but that is probably why I found him pleasantly un-bellicose (except of course when he’s slaying man and beast). Dramatically, he was excellent, with natural gestures and magnetism off the chart. When Siegfried finally gets to Brünnhilde, the chemistry between Morris and voluptuous soprano Deborah Voigt pales the digital flames all around them as they sing together. Whew.
I have now at last seen Siegfried, thanks to the miracle of HD broadcast, and Morris is the man to represent that man who rises up in the twilight of the gods. He embodies the Romantic hero, and it is perfectly clear why a goddess would abandon her armor for him.
The rest of the cast is equally wonderful, probably actually more so when it comes to the singing. Welsh bass-baritone Bryn Terfel mesmerized as The Wanderer (the lord of the gods, Wotan, in disguise, preparing for the end of the world as they have made it), and Gerhard Siegel gives a highly elaborated characterization of the scheming dwarf Mime, while Eric Owens, with his deep resonant bass-baritone voice, just about knocks you out as Mime’s brother Alberich. The voices float out from a vast and changeable sea of music.
The Met’s principal conductor Fabio Luisi and the orchestra give us Wagner without the bombast and pomposity from which it sometimes suffers. I had no idea there was such beautiful music in there, so nuanced and so rich in colors. I had always felt badgered by those recurring leitmotivs, but in this playing, they were more like the magic bird leading the way to the mountain.
The Met’s Siegfried is a tremendous experience. It doesn’t waste one minute of your time. Encore re-broadcast date is yet to be announced, but mark your calendar now for the return of Morris and Voigt in the Ring cycle’s six-hour conclusion, Götterdämmerung, to be broadcast live Feb. 11, 2012. Just don’t plan to do anything else that day.